Fairness in Disciplinary Proceedings and Appeals - Preiss v General Dental Council

Author:Mr Andrew Lidbetter
Profession:Herbert Smith
 
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Introduction

It is well established that professional disciplinary proceedings engage the right to a fair hearing under Article 6(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights (Le Compte v Belgium (1981) 4 EHRR 1). In Preiss v General Dental Council [2001] All ER (D) 239 (Jul), the Privy Council has considered the fairness of the disciplinary procedures operated by the General Dental Council (GDC), and the Privy Council's role in hearing professional disciplinary appeals.

Mr Preiss, a registered dentist, was the subject of disciplinary charges in respect of a course of treatment which ultimately required one of his patients to have all of her teeth extracted. The GDC's Professional Conduct Committee (PCC) found Mr Preiss guilty of serious professional misconduct, and directed that he should be suspended from the Dentists' Register for twelve months. Mr Preiss appealed to the Privy Council.

The Requirement for an Independent and Impartial Tribunal

The main issue for the Privy Council was whether the PCC satisfied the requirement of Article 6(1) that there must be a hearing before an 'independent and impartial tribunal'. This question required an analysis of the disciplinary system established under the Dentists Act 1984 and associated rules and regulations, a system which had several stages. First, when the GDC received a complaint it was considered by the Registrar. If the complaint raised a question of conduct concerning a particular dentist, the Registrar would refer the complaint to a 'Preliminary Screener'. Secondly, the function of the Preliminary Screener was to consider whether there might be a case to answer, and to initiate proceedings before the GDC's Preliminary Proceedings Committee (PPC) unless he considered that the case need proceed no further. The Preliminary Screener in Mr Preiss' case was the President of the GDC. Thirdly the PPC, which consisted of five members of the GDC plus two others, decided whether the case should be referred to the PCC. Finally, the allegations of serious professional misconduct were determined by the PCC, which consisted of the President and ten other members of the GDC.

In Stefan v United Kingdom (1999) 25 EHRR CD 130, the European Commission of Human Rights had expressed concerns about a comparable scheme operated at that time by the General Medical Council, noting in particular the lack of independence between the GMC and its Health Committee, and the extensive role of the GMC President in the scheme. Similarly, the Privy Council was prepared to accept that the GDC process would not comply with Article 6(1) without additional safeguards. It held that:

'In the opinion of the Board, when the participation of the President both as Preliminary Screener and as chairman of the PCC is seen in conjunction...

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